A common question I get asked is, “how do I use my phone when I’m traveling internationally? Is there a best way to do it?”
There are many different ways to use your phone internationally and it also depends on what type of trip you’re doing. If you’re going on vacation, a quick trip, long-term traveling, etc. there are different ways that will be best for your specific trip. Regardless of what type of trip you’re going on, there are a few things you need to do for each trip. Below are different ways you can use your phone internationally, which option is best for who, a scary mistake I made (so you don’t do it too), and what you should do for every trip.
Always use airplane mode.
When traveling internationally, you should always turn your cell phone on airplane mode. By turning your phone on airplane mode, it saves your data and doesn’t use international roaming. Whether you’re using an international data plan or a local SIM card, you should always turn your phone on airplane mode when you’re not using it.
When you’re not on airplane mode, your phone is constantly running apps in the background or using data even when you’re not actually physically using it. So save your data and not waste any money and turn your phone on airplane mode. You can easily toggle back and forth when you need to use your phone.
If you don’t have an international plan or a local SIM card and you’re just using Wi-Fi, you need to make sure your phone is on airplane mode, or else you will get charged international roaming fees and it can get very costly.
This is best for: everyone traveling. This helps save data, cut costs, and not get charged international fees.
Unlock your phone.
If you’re wanting to use a local SIM card in the country you’re traveling to, you will need to unlock your phone. If your phone is locked, you’ll only be able to use the network and carrier that you bought your phone from. Since you’re traveling in another country, your current network and carrier will most likely not work internationally. This means if you buy a local SIM card and your phone is not locked, your phone will not work.
Make sure to unlock your phone or buy an unlocked phone so you can use your phone internationally. This is a very important step you need to do if you’re getting a local SIM card.
This is best for: people wanting to use local SIM cards in each country.
Pause your cell phone plan.
Many phone carriers allow you to pause or suspend your phone when needed. Pausing or suspending your phone while traveling allows you to keep your phone number and account while paying a minimal monthly fee. This is perfect if you’re traveling long-term and if you want to keep your phone number for when you return. Check with your cell phone carrier and see if you can pause/suspend your phone plan while you’re traveling. This will save you a lot of money with your phone.
This is best for: long-term travelers so you can save your number back at home and cut costs.
Get a local SIM card.
This is the best option and most recommended option you should do with your phone. If your phone is unlocked, you can use a local SIM card abroad. Getting a local SIM card is the cheapest, easiest, and most convenient option to do. A lot of countries have cheap local SIM cards that you can buy.
If you’re traveling in a European country that is part of the European Union (EU), you can now use one SIM card throughout the EU countries at no additional cost. Back in the day when I was first traveling Europe, you had to get individual SIM cards for each country (yikes – that was costly). Now you no longer need to do that and can use one SIM card within the EU.
A few extra tips with buying a local SIM card:
- Check to see if there’s cell phone stands at the airport you’re flying into
- Check the hours of operation for the cell phone stand. Some airports have 24-hr cell phone stands, while others only operate during certain hours
- If you’re able to, get the local SIM card in the city center instead of the airport. It will be cheaper elsewhere (sidenote: make sure to bring your passport with you when getting a local SIM card. They need to scan your passport in order to give you the SIM card)
- Prior to entering the country, do a quick search of which cell phone carrier is best in that country as there are different ones with different prices and coverage
- Make sure it works before leaving
This is best for: vacationers, long-term travelers, and anyone who wants to stay connected while traveling. This is the best, cheap, most convenient option.
Bring a thin paperclip.
A little hack I always do for every trip is to bring a thin paperclip. Bring a small ziplock bag and place a thin paperclip in it. Keep this bag with you at all times so you can easily open your SIM card in your phone and place your current SIM card in the bag for safekeeping. While you’re traveling on the go, it’s perfect having a thin paperclip with you at all times in case you need to quickly and easily pop out your SIM card.
This is best for: people that are using local SIM cards.
Keep the paper and passcode!
This is a mistake I made and quickly regretted when I was traveling. Please do not make the same mistake as I did!
When I was traveling in the Netherlands, I was taking the train from Amsterdam to Den Haag, which is where I used to live. On the train, my phone kept freezing so I thought if I turned it off and back on, it would reset the phone and start working again. However, when I turned my phone back on, I was unable to get back into my phone because I didn’t have the passcode.
When you buy a local SIM card, it comes with a pamphlet of information. In that pamphlet, usually has a passcode and other important information you need. Bring that pamphlet with you at all times.
Since I didn’t have the pamphlet with me, I didn’t have the specific passcode to unlock my phone. Since I didn’t have the passcode to unlock my phone, I was unable to use my phone the entire night. The train I was on broke down and I was lost, stranded, and without a phone at 3 in the morning. I wasn’t able to contact anyone, look up different transportation options to get home or use my phone at all. The whole night turned into a disaster as I was traveling solo and didn’t have a phone to rely on.
This is best for: people traveling with a local SIM card.
Get an international plan.
Check with your current phone plan to see if you have an international option. Most cell phone carriers have an international plan that you can upgrade to or pay an additional fee for when you’re traveling. If they don’t, consider changing phone carriers to a different carrier that has an international plan.
For example, in America, T-Mobile has a very great international plan. However, you need to make sure the coverage is still good in your home country (as you will still be using it when you’re home) and if the plan covers the countries you’re traveling to.
This is best for: people who travel a lot but aren’t traveling long-term.
Use free Wi-Fi.
If you’re going on vacation and do not want to get a local SIM card or get an international plan, you can always just use the local Wi-Fi. So many places have Wi-Fi at restaurants, at the accommodation, at train stations, airports, etc. Some cities even offer free city Wi-Fi that you can connect to. Depending on where you’re traveling to, a lot of places nowadays have Wi-Fi that you can easily connect to and use. For the first ~20 countries I traveled to, I only used public Wi-Fi. You’re still able to get around and connect when you need to. It’s a great, free option and totally doable.
This is best for: people wanting a free, cheap option to travel.
Rent a portable Wi-Fi device.
If you’re traveling for a short vacation, renting a portable Wi-Fi device is an option you can do. You can rent one for a daily or weekly rate. You can get it mailed to you before your trip or have it shipped to your accommodation so it’s there when you arrive. This is a great alternative if you want to always connect to your phone, but don’t have an unlocked phone or if it’s too expensive to get a local SIM card.
This is best for: people who want to stay connected on their phone, but don’t have an unlocked phone or if the local SIM card is too expensive.
Check your current plan.
Some carriers allow you to use your phone in certain countries for free. Check to see what destination you’re traveling to and if your cell phone carrier allows you to use your phone for free there.
For example, my plan with my phone carrier allows me to use my phone while I travel throughout Mexico for free. There aren’t any roaming or data charges for using my phone in Mexico.
This is best for: people traveling to nearby countries with premium phone plans.
Don’t forget to bring a battery pack!
When traveling, you’ll most likely be using your phone a lot. Whether it’s to get around, connect with others, go on social media, or take multiple photos of everything you see, your phone will use up its battery very quickly. Always bring a battery pack with you while you’re traveling. Make sure to bring a charging cord to connect and charge your phone to the battery pack.
I always use this one as it is small and compact, not too heavy, and gets the job done.
Disclosure: This post contains an affiliate link, which means if you buy something through the link I will receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. Thank you so much for your support!
This is best for: everyone who is traveling so your phone never dies on you.
Make sure to download WhatsApp.
If you travel a lot, you’re probably already familiar with WhatsApp. WhatsApp is a great texting app that you can use to communicate with your family/friends back at home, connect with other travelers you meet on the road, and even connect with local businesses.
Before your international trip, make sure to download WhatsApp and have it connected to your current cell phone number. This way, your family/friends can still text you through WhatsApp with your same phone number and you can use that same number while traveling. The reason why you need to download it before you leave is because WhatsApp sends a text message verification code. If you’re already abroad, you won’t be able to receive the text message verification code to get into WhatsApp. A lot of American and Canadian travelers I’ve met didn’t realize this and weren’t able to use WhatsApp.
This is best for: everyone who is traveling. This helps you stay connected to everyone.
Which option is best for me?
If you’re traveling long-term, the best option to use your phone internationally is to unlock your phone and get local SIM cards in every country you travel to. This is the cheapest and easiest way to travel long-term.
If you’re traveling on vacation or travel a lot internationally, I recommend either getting a local SIM card or using free public Wi-Fi.
If you’re traveling a lot, but not staying for a long time, getting a local SIM card or an international phone plan is the best thing to do.
Have any questions? Comment below and I’ll answer your questions!